Orlando's airport helps itself by helping you fly there cheaply

It's unusual for an airport to think of itself as anything more than a way station. We have to visit them but we don't really want to, and consequently, most of them are resolutely run by bored civic authorities and industrial management agencies. Head to the web site of your local runway, and you won't find much more than a list of airlines, driving directions, and maybe a few warnings about how to kowtow to the TSA. Whaddaya expect? It's the airport.

So it's refreshing to see an airport take control of its own destiny. In Orlando, a city that stands to lose a great deal from the coming slowdown in tourism and convention business, the airport (coded MCO) wants to help passengers save money flying there. So it has uploaded page of the latest airfare specials flying there.

It makes sense, and it's so simple you have to wonder why your airport isn't doing it to stimulate business. Many smaller American airports are floundering as the major airlines yank service. But if airport authorities do all they can to help keep the planes full, the airlines will be less likely to suspend service. If they go, the airports, which depend on landing fees that are built into the cost of every ticket, will go into the budget hole.

Smart, then, for an airport to actually think about what its customers actually need. A few days ago, I wrote about the growing trend of airports offering free flu shots for waiting passengers, which is a clever use of our time. Now an airport is helping us use its facilities cheaply. Las Vegas authorities have been wailing and gnashing their teeth as their arrivals have fallen off. But Orlando, always a family destination, has known for a long time that value (or the perception of it) is the name of its game. Let it be a lesson for America's tourism infrastructure, which developed an established distaste for budget travelers and is now paying the price.

This sales tool also doesn't take much effort. The airport doesn't have to do a thing. Automated computer searches do most of the heavy lifting these days, and the MCO page links to the airlines' own sites, where the money will actually change hands. It even has a few links to last-minute deals at sites like Expedia and Travelocity. Customers just click and book elsewhere.

Sure, there are other web sites that will trawl the list of going airfares and e-mail you when they reach a predetermined price threshold (Hotwire.com's Trip Watcher and Farecast come to mind). Those are useful, too. But it's good to see some civic services actually taking the lead in helping Americans save our money rather than just devising ways to part us from it. The technology has been there for a while. It's about time it was used like this.

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